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An Interview with Scarlett Whispers: on the craft of burlesque, glitter hangovers and Cabaret Volt-Air

We have been delighted to welcome the wonderful Scarlett Whispers to our t'ARTopia stage, not once but twice!


We spoke to Scarlett about the craft of burlesque, from creating your act to making your own feather fans, her own journey into it, and her upcoming show Cabaret Volt-Air!




How did you get into burlesque? What made you fall in love with it as an art form?


I got into burlesque quite unexpectedly when I was at university. I was studying history of art at the Courtauld Institute of Art and researching Surrealist performance art. I came across a dancer called Hélène Vanel, who performed at the openings to Surrealist exhibitions back in the 1930s. She was part of a bohemian society, just like the one in Tender is the Night by Fitzgerald, and worked with artists like Picasso, Dalí and André Breton (side note: it’s rumoured that Dalí took credit for her choreography). Vanel started a summer dance school with the woman she loved, Loïs Hutton, and Margaret Morris, in the French Riveria in the 1920s, where they did more performances. But her performance at L'Exposition internationale du surréalisme engaged with the body, gender and concepts like hysteria - a condition Surrealists viewed as a subversion of the status quo. This concept of the body and dance as a tool to upend social categories is what led me straight to burlesque.


Hélène Vanel 
Hélène Vanel 

I followed the history of burlesque from its early days as shocking ‘leg shows’ in Victorian London, all the way through to the Golden Age in America, to its ban and then revival by the queer community in Australia and the names we know like Dita von Teese and Catherine D’Lish in the 1990s. The concepts of eroticism, the power of the restricted or unconventional parts of the body to make a political statement, struck me as one of the most powerful and memorable ways to say something. It wasn’t just shows for audiences but something for performers too. All types of people were using burlesque in different ways, regardless of body shape, gender, identity, sexuality, race, class, you name it.


I took burlesque dance classes just to get an idea of what it was actually like here and now. I remember telling the teacher I was a really bad dancer and she had her work cut out for her. I never thought I’d actually end up dancing professionally! In those classes, I learned about magnifying props like gloves, stockings and feather boas and how to transform an object into something that can help you tell a story. As an artform, it still embodies its rich history.


But as a discipline and an industry, burlesque has a very special and unique community that now, I genuinely could never bear to leave. 


Everybody is a champion for everybody else. The most established, international stars are there supporting ‘burly babies’ still overcoming their jelly legs on stage, it’s full of every type of person and everybody accepts everybody. I think it’s because everyone respects the vulnerability you have when stripping on stage, and everyone genuinely celebrates what each individual does with the artform. I thought it would be a competitive and difficult industry - and it’s tough with more and more venues and opportunities closing - but your colleagues are the ones making it worth it. When I speak to other performers, we always agree that the experience of performing a burlesque act at a show is just as much about the time you have backstage with others as it is the time you’re on stage.



It can take a lot of confidence to get up on stage. What draws you to performing? Have you always felt comfortable on stage?


Getting over stage fright was one of the biggest challenges for me. I’ve always hated the spotlight and had to work really hard to tackle self-doubt in my work. The first time I had to perform, it was just in front of a small group of other dancers in a studio, and it was absolutely horrible. I thought I’d never be able to do it on a real stage. But when I did for the first time, it was so exhilarating - nothing else can match it. I guess it’s made me an adrenaline junkie.*


*There’s also something called a ‘glitter hangover’ - the crash you get after being on stage, so full of adrenaline and happiness. It can feel a bit like a hangover.


The thing that kept me coming back was I kept having ideas for acts that I didn’t want to drop. One of my favourite things about burlesque is the process of making an act, designing and making the costume, choreographing - it’s just a brilliant creative outlet. 


And remembering who you’re performing to at a burlesque show. The crowd is almost always enthusiastic, supportive, body-positive people who aren’t there to be judgemental. The great thing about burlesque, and all cabaret performance, is it’s so much about the audience relationship. It’s not an uncomfortable power dynamic and the performer is in control of what happens; it’s about both of you enjoying the act together.



How does an act come to you? Is it music that inspires it, or something else entirely?


Burlesque performers can be inspired by literally anything, and sometimes the origin stories can be really wacky. Many go from a historical figure (Bettie Page, Jean Idelle, Josephine Baker), a stock character (a dinner lady, a cartoon character) or a style. A lot of burlesque is a political statement so an act starts from something the performer wants to say or identifies with. But I’ve seen acts about Bugs Bunny, masturbation, a particular hat… the list is long! Personally, I love the technical elements of burlesque so I’m usually inspired by a prop. I have acts with feather fans, feather boas, snap fans, your classic gloves and stockings, a corset, cowboy hat, a circle cut skirt that becomes a cape. I want to get rip-off trousers for my next act. They’re so dramatic!



You make all of your own costumes and fans. Can you speak a bit about that side of the art form, what you love about it and how you’ve developed your craft?


If I’m not performing, I spend most of my Friday and Saturday nights sewing or rhinestoning, surrounded by glue, odd bits of string, sequins and sparkles. It’s the part of the craft that is calm - you’re working with your hands, and it uses a different type of creative thinking. It also makes me feel tapped into the roots of burlesque. Most dancers back in the day made their own costumes and repaired them all themselves, and many still do now. A really accurate representation of burlesque is (sadly not the fabulous Christina Aguilera film) but On Tour. There’s a scene with the touring group of dancers all on the train, stitching and doing last minute costuming. It’s very relatable and that’s what it’s like backstage too. I always have an emergency sewing kit when I go to a show.



You performed with a gorgeous feather fan at our last t’ARTopia event, and when you described how you’d made it I was fascinated! Would you able to explain how you created it here?


Thank you! I partly did it to cut down on costs (feathers are so expensive) and so I could ‘hand’ the fans, which means making the left and right one different. But it was also just because I love to craft! I started with twenty-four gorgeous feathers, separated them into the ones that bore left and right, then arranged each set of twelve into the order I wanted them in. Short, extra curly ones on the outside, the thicker ones in the middle. Then I measured them, cut and filed the stalks, and attached each feather to a stave with wire. It’s more cutting and filing the (sharp!) wire after that to make each stave smooth. To make the fan, the staves all need to go on a bolt, separated with nuts, and after measuring the distance you want each feather to be from its neighbour, I used fishing wire to weave them together. That’s how they open and close like a fan. Making them myself meant I could have larger feathers which would usually cost a couple of hundred more, and I feel very sure when taking them apart for repairs or adjustments. It took me months but I would recommend doing it to anyone who wants to fan dance!



You have a really exciting event coming up. Can you tell our readers a bit about what they can expect from it and why they should be booking their tickets now?!


I’m producing my first show! After a performance in December, I was asked to put on a two-night run so I’m delighted to be putting together my own cabaret. It features classic and neo-burlesque from myself and some other fabulous performers on the scene who are exploring queer identity, pin up models and vibrators. But it’s a variety show so there’s also acrobatics, mime art, clowning, comedy and live music. I’m really thrilled with the artists who are getting involved and know it will be a dazzling show.


You should absolutely be booking tickets now for Friday 8th and Saturday 9th March at The Pen Theatre on thepentheatre.com/volt-air




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